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- The Best Reviewed Books of the WeekMay 25, 2018
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There are other worlds they have not told you of that wish to speak to you.
Hollywood threw acid in both your eyes before you were seven years old, you’re blind.
Recent films about Martin Luther King Jr., Miles Davis, Nina Simone, and James Baldwin have all managed to repudiate the subjectivity of black icons, and turn them into projections of the society’s current complexes rather than humanize figures who spent their lives being objectified and made symbolic. As we saw with Moonlight the most powerful feat a story about a black man or woman can accomplish is just being their story and not the story of what we represent. Do we even remember the difference? I needed to write something that reified the tension between being and representing in a fresh and timeless way, and to resist turning all of my heroes into empty gestures on the surface of history I had to look at who they really were off the record, and what that says about who we were and are to worship them so faithfully, while facing so little about them.
I wanted to build a chorus of taboos, featuring a neon army of negro strays marching in glorified unison away from shame, sorrow, and empty aggrandizement, and toward redemption in the form of a value system so wild and subtle and free-willed it cannot be fetishized, a revaluation of values for the African Diaspora wherein the ugly improprietous beauty of our eternally looping orphanage in the west allows us to once and for all breach our loyalty to identity politics at its very root, where desire and repulsion mingle and become some nuance of the erotic in a space where eros is equal to self-effacement, where we know automatically how to objectify ourselves and often forget who we are when we go on the market in those elaborately blunted masks.
I wanted to deconstruct the aesthetic of black suffering, to point out how well we ourselves package and aestheticize our deepest agonies and sell them and feed them and feed on them and call that culture, and turn our culture necrotic in the service of that habit. I wanted to prove that disclosure happens from the inside/out, that no one can tell us how to be much less how to be hip or beautiful or effective or ourselves, but we know when we’re faking it and getting by, we know when we’re all conspiring to impress White America, to oppress ourselves with false archetypes, and then get stuck there imitating ourselves in the contrived heroics of commercial success, and those performances are untallied fatalities. I needed to learn to live in a way that alienated me from all of that and any phony fall backs into thought patterns it was time to dismiss and abandon. To truly banish that regression I needed the exact shock therapy that everyday life imposes upon the subconscious minds of all of us on- and offline.
I needed to demonstrate the fact that the chorus of taboos I longed for was now in session as the incessant cavalcade of words and images coming at us from every angle: eight second videos of black teens in drag imitating gospel singers, lip augmentation ads nestled safely in front of Louis Armstrong reissue announcements, eating shows and pepper challenges that take us into the homes of southern blacks to cry laughing tears side by bluelighted screen side, expert weave tutorials: how to bleach your one hundred percent human hair clip in extensions blonde in three easy steps, how to never be appalled, how to cover vitiligo with foundation, how the levees are unbound by militias, how to eat for your melanin, why he dates white women, why chicken is killing everyone and still has magic powers in a ritual sacrifice, meme of rapper admitting he learned everything from Bill Cosby as he chants Hello, America in a dingy dashiki, gif of the last black president twerking on a battlefield somewhere or on Ellen, every Jet girl of the week lined up outside of a roller rink in Compton witnessing the police shoot their man and livestreaming it on Facebook, Kendrick screaming Martin had a dream, you thinking to yourself, “say literally again and watch what happens,” (the pandemic and atonal threat of played-out parts of speech), top secret footage of a black scientist teaching us how weave and bleach dismantle the nervous system and give your kids autism and vitiligo, 143 characters of clever nonsense hashtag buy my new album, feed me, feed me, feed me! A poet’s nightmare or a poet’s paradise, all the data is poetry now, every glitch and every stream, we suffer and thrive under poetry’s laws and that lawlessness, that scripted going off script, governs all our obsessions whether we face them or not they call out to us, a chorus of taboos.
I thought of the vintage fortunetelling dream books working class blacks used to trade like gypsy oracles, and I needed to create a less transient dreamscape full of evidence of things seen and not seen, a space for all of us to share as we sleepwalk through our ever-reluctant escape into the afro future, into that place where these huddled taboos take shape and reform the lies we’ve been telling ourselves about who are, or who we are meant to be. I wanted one document to testify to and through all of this, to hunt for the submerged self in this absurd and gorgeous and toxic and somehow healing landscape where everything is finally everything, where we proliferate in the risk of meaninglessness and as black bodies, end up with a brand new language, and unfettered code made of all the codes we’ve broken and recovered from in order to see one another.
To create this document effectively, or to perform it, I had to allow our most fixed obsessions, our martyrs and style icons, to dance alongside their haunts, to be haunted and unclean and real and unrevised, to publicly reclaim their privacy in the way that black culture collectively and unremittingly is busy in the act to reclaiming intimacy for itself. Hollywood, celebrity, and the consonant desire for and disgust with fame on mainstream terms, as the primary saboteurs of our creative freedom, need to be harnessed for their own undoing. The fixed and coveted iconography I’ve forced in step with the capricious rebel music that we compose on modern media platforms yields to the grammar of our truest glamour, our deep need for visceral experiences no matter the stakes.
Black life is so beautiful and intoxicating and mimicked in the west because we are willing to be overcome by our obsessions, whether we admit it or not, and that goes for everyone from MLK to 50 cent to Dave Chappelle to Abbey Lincoln to Azealia Banks, finally no amount of visibility or social responsibility can stifle the private needs of the black spirit, everyday we testify to this in every medium, we give up the ghost, go for broke, wake up from the dream sprinting. What would happen if instead of weave and chicken grease and piety we became obsessed with some things that are actually sustainable, what if the real spirit corruption is who we become when we shutdown our subconscious minds in order to be admired and what if we return to forever free from the sense that full self-expression is transgressive and dangerous, free from the hypocritical notion that self-mastery is about self-abnegation, compartmentalization, and becoming fit for consumption in a paradigm that strives to pin us down: preacher, poet, dancer, womanizer, redeemer, what if you’re all five and then some. Do you get a commercial? Your very own brand? What if we embrace for once, our sublime dangerousness, as necessary to our liberation from the grand lie of late capitalism.
These are the questions I’m obsessed with and needed to flesh out in Hollywood Forever. Within that there were still topics I didn’t feel all that intrepid about discussing, which told me I needed to.
It’s as American and saccharine as apple pie, how we love to be traumatized by our very own desires. How the deepest suspicions of our partner’s infidelity arrive in the middle of our very own fantasies or affairs. Discussing MLK’s infidelity early in the book and in the bleak rhetoric of an autopsy, was my route into dealing with how ridiculous our history of criminalizing and demonizing forms of love and affection that trouble the western family structure really is, how complicit we’ve all become in our whitewashing by which I mean fear of telling ourselves the truth about ourselves.
If we’re going to deify a man we have to account for all of his deeds, face them all, find out not just what made him heroic, but also what made him human and fallible and personal. Nor can we fall into glorifying those contradictions. The work here is simply to face them, to occupy the space ambivalence makes for self-discovery. To admit we love and revel in contradiction and don’t really respect stiff obedience as much as we pretend, even in our so-called saviors. In the spirit of black people going about their daily business and being capable of unsanctimonious narratives about what that is, sex, in all of its roles, cannot be simply edited out or turned into vaudeville or made all about the ten commandments or as if only rappers and pimps are promiscuous sometimes.
The first step in breaking the spell of public-private lives in the diaspora, in the context of this book, had to be breaking our hearts. Admitting that our most faithful pacifist was as much at war with his erotic self as the average man or woman in the west, and asking why. Each time my heart is broken, it makes me feel more adventurous as O’Hara warns. Black America needs to face the suppressed heartbreak that will get us there, into the repressed adventure in the soul of our conformity, that trip back we’re all afraid to make because the voyage here, to the plateau, was so cold and trying.
He isn’t true, he beats me too, Billie Holiday croons in one of her more disturbing love songs. It begins with a sly indictment. Sometimes I say if I could just get away with my man / he’d go straight sure as fate for it never is too late for a man. Torment can get stuck in love’s position. This idea that a lover can be fixed, as in repaired, a man with a machine connotation, blinds the hopeful one to the fact that they are the fix.
I’ll always be deeply infatuated with Miles Davis. I’ll always forgive my father. And I’ll always pick the most talented tormented black man I can find, the most afraid to admit he suffers, and try to fit myself in love’s position in his life so torment can’t any longer. And I’ll always understand when he chooses his torment over me, silently or otherwise, covets it, cause in my own way by choosing him I’ve done the same. The savior complex and the desire to ruin are opposites of the same energy. But in the moment none of this is so self-aware and composed, it’s archetypal energy imprisoned in the subconscious adulterating the will, and the only antidote is to set it free to wreak its havoc and self-destruct, leaving space for a new relationship to the ego, one not so rooted in repeating patterns to reach the familiar or as form of intimacy. I cannot explore privacy or black vigilance or black vengeance, without discussing the private violence or violence rendered intimate that sometimes shows up in the black family as a misplaced effort to detoxify from state violence.
I use Miles because he is so fittingly symbolic of this, his tenderest most seductively tempered trumpet tone plays so well against the tension between his power and his ability to exercise it in American society. He is beaten by cops for standing outside at his own concert, he goes home and beats his wife. Could this have been your baby crying, with his fists in the air? How should a human respond to perceived helplessness? When violence masquerades as intimacy, on both the domestic and state levels, when to touch the black man they love so much they have to hit him, and he swings back and finds his wife in the gap between his courage and his will to live, will I catch you running to pass that baton?
Rather than simply point out the rising suicide rate in black men, or that I know some who have attempted it, or that displaced pride is lethal, I wanted to look at the warning signs that not just an individual man or woman, but a whole society, is bent on dying under the guise of martyrdom, that we’ve created a death culture, that everyone in the west is sick, wants to be saved, yet pretends an unnatural way of life is gratifying and normal and loses all sense of self-worth and original thought in the process. Hip-hop culture especially is a death culture, but it’s also just the most honest reflection we have of the condition at large. When Future mumbles about codeine you can either rebuke his delinquency or recognize his suffering. Face the sun, and if it’s offensive or too bright you need more of it. That’s the only spotlight that can lead us back to life.
I think the American approach to marriage and monogamy turns a lot of us into cowards, hypocrites and politicians. It makes many would be rebels or free thinkers suddenly complicit and suburban. There’s just something sanctimonious about the western concept of romance, something we’re all afraid to admit. In black culture here, I think that this is at the root of a lot of the dysfunction, the long history of black men being told how they can relate to women, how to breed, and black women representing both their success and failure in the matter, and the mutual and irresistible resentment that can ensue between two people when they both know this and are capital. When you’re instructed so obsessively there’s little room to develop your own healthy concept of this area of life, of love, or to know the difference between what feels good and what just feels safe. But love always wins, even when competing with torment and oppression and miseducation, or especially then. It’s just time to talk about what really happens, and not just in rap songs. It’s time to actually love what happens, to redeem it and claim it, give it new names, and stop fantasizing about some contrived scene where layered desires are a sin and divorce is the grandest tragedy and all change is betrayal. All of that kind of disgusts me, that the rhetoric surrounding coming together has to be so delicate and one-dimensional. So Hollywood and forever.
So-called food is responsible for more death than anything in this society. Talk about vowing eternal allegiance to what kills us… we latch on to lives of consuming things we have no role in producing. We overlook slaughterhouses and hormone injections and lard-laden batters and Roundup™ and the trace amounts of rat feces the FDA allows in all packaged food and the rat DNA found in tumors—we look past all that to satiate the death drive and blood addiction that makes the west so sick. Then we blame the bible, the helios biblios, that sun book that reads let the fruit be your food and the herbs be your medicine. We pray over slain animals in the name of white Jesus? Who are we fooling? You’re addicted to blood.
Fear of being your true natural black self will turn you into a vampire, a stranger in your own skin. Of all the taboos I chose to call out in the name of ruining the Hollywood in us with the unblue reckoning blues, coming for that food we’re all addicted to will always be the most dangerous and fraught. You can’t quit jiving yourself until you kick that addiction, though, there’s no two ways about it. They’ve got money between you and this pretend Hollywood food they’ve got you addicted to, and you’re trained to believe you’re free, so you think a seat at that table has something to do with finessed liberation, so you pull right up to the killing field three times a day if you’re lucky. And anyone who tries to remind you to simply eat things that grow on trees and out of the earth before you become synthetic and genetically modified yourself, is aggressively silenced. It’s always surprised me that we would trust a system that wants to control us to feed us anything but poison and gimmick nourishment. But here we are, waiting for Jesus to come out of KFC with some biscuits or whatever.
The real root of all our brute or mediocre or complacent behavior is this in my opinion. These drugs and stimulants we call food and shove in our mouths without thinking and become monsters when weaned from unless we can get to the peaceful place where we no longer crave them. The glorification of both high end and pedestrian ratchet food as some kind of security blanket, the socio-economic violence of that, is one of my deepest concerns when I think about blackness and black bodies in western habitats, there is no hope for restitution if we can’t get past mass produced fried chicken and all the other slave food we eat in the name of freedom. Sorry.
What I’m trying to say is that there’s a difference between real glamor and what’s glamorized and if you get stuck living like an advertisement while believing you’re being saved, that’s a really sad and heartless sentence and forever is a long long time.